Women Realtors

Review: Johnson on Wharton

Carol S. Wharton. Framing A Domain for Work and Family. New York: Lexington Books, 2002. 174 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-7391-0367-9.

Reviewed for H-Business by Denise R. Johnson, Department of History, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
Published by H-Business (July 2004).

The real estate industry of the twenty-first century has become dominated by multi-billion dollar corporations. Unlike the earlier mom-and-pop real estate agencies, corporate giants like Century 21 and Remax have created a large national network of firms that include women within their ranks as agents, and some successful female agents have become brokers or managers in the highly competitive environment of home and property sales. Historically, women have been readily accepted into the many domestic service industries, including guest hospitality (hotels), food service, and personal care service agencies running the gamut from home health care for seniors to home cleaning services. Traditional notions of gendered labor have shaped ideals about what type of work or professions are best suited for women. Because of socially constructed notions of women's perceived connection to hearth and home, and their intuitive desire to help others, employers saw them as ideal candidates for real estate sales. However, real estate work has become a "Catch 22" employment option for many women--particularly those seeking to potentially increase their earnings, while investing modest amounts of time in training for real estate licensing.

Through oral histories, Carol S. Wharton found that women realtors had varying reasons for choosing their profession. Real estate work offered an alternative to those weary of their professions; those who have lost jobs to permanent downsizing or temporary layoffs (although the author notes that deindustrialization frees workers from time and space constraints, p. 20), those seeking flexibility in their work, or those supplementing family incomes. Overall, the service industries, including real estate, provide reasonably easy access to employment for single women, middle-age women returning to work after several years' hiatus, or newly divorced women who may have difficulty finding lucrative career opportunities. Real estate licensing requires brief training periods and testing thus allowing for immediate access to earning wages, provided the individual was willing to put forth the effort required to earn the higher wages.

Wharton's research also reveals that many women sought out real estate work not as part-time and supplemental workers; rather, most sought out real estate as a full-time job. Moreover, the majority of women found the work to be long and grueling and most noted that the success of the realtor was dependent on the economic market and the determination of the individual in securing a livelihood. If current advertisements regarding real estate work (Remax currently runs television commercials that depict men and women fully enmeshed in their real estate work) are accurate, realtors have little or no time to pursue outside interests that include time for family and recreation; however, the realtors as portrayed by Remax enjoy wildly successful real estate careers. Further, the interviews reveal that the real estate business offers few, if any fringe benefits that might include health insurance, sick time, or other essentials prized by most employees. Therefore, illness or hospitalization could potentially lead to financial ruin and end a real estate career. In sum, like other service work, realtors are vulnerable to market highs and lows and other than enjoying company affiliation; act as independent contractors who must be highly organized and financially successful in order to survive personal adversity and fluctuations in the economy.

In the introduction, Wharton notes that her objective in writing the book was to better understand the experiences of women realtors and how they had made real estate their domain. In addition, she wanted to know how they integrated their work and family obligations (p. 2). Wharton's method of conducting personal interviews with realtors is effective in revealing both the perks and the pitfalls of real estate work. She provides a contextual framework that allows readers to better understand the real estate business and how it impacts the lives of agents, especially female agents with young children. Although the title, Framing a Domain for Work and Family suggests that women realtors control their work environments and family lives, the interviews reveal that real estate work commands constant attention, if one is to be successful. The research reveals that women realtors had relative control over schedules, they still logged long work hours, conducted family and real estate business simultaneously, and some of the interviewees noted that they were regularly frustrated with their work. On the upshot, a few women admitted to liking the paychecks and the "high" of selling a pricey piece of real estate. Because of the unpredictable nature of real estate, one could conclude that women realtors remain vulnerable to changing markets and family circumstances that potentially hinder real autonomy and empowerment. Moreover, Wharton's research reveals that women who had strong support at home-husbands willing to care for children and households, access to spur of the moment babysitters, and women who had the security of additional sources of income were by far the most successful in "framing" their domains (pp. 87-94). More realistically, the work framed the lives of the women because in order to be successful the realtors had to be on call workers, which took them away from their homes and families both nights and weekends. Although the women were able to grab brief snatches of time to attend their children's school events, take a course, or attend personal functions-the time, as most of the interviewees indicated, was made up somewhere throughout the day, evening, or weekend.

The book is well written and is nicely footnoted and indexed, but still leaves one with unanswered questions. For example, have men vacated the real estate business as women gained a strong presence or have women realtors entered the field hoping to gain an edge in the market? How have men and women realtors worked together and do their earnings differ and if so what accounts for the differences? It appears based on the questions asked by Wharton that married women with children fared the best as realtors, but what about the single woman, especially single mothers? Were these the women that could not be accounted for when Wharton attempted to conduct follow up interviews with the thirty female realtors in 1998? How receptive has society been in accepting real estate as a profession given the minimal education requirements? A more in depth analysis on why women left other jobs to enter real estate work needs to be explored. A discussion regarding deindustrialization mentioned in the first chaptermight be explained more succinctly in the context of a rapidly changing technological society so that readers can grasp the enormity of downsized workers plight and their desire to secure meaningful and gainful employment (p. 20). Although individual interviews were well organized with critical questions, a larger sampling may have added a new contour to the research by providing a more fleshed out view of the lives of female realtors from various social, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Perhaps a more elaborate analysis of real estate and women of color would be welcome since the majority of minority women work outside of the home. Nonetheless the book provides a window into the ever-evolving nature of work and its relationship to gender and should be considered while exploring gender and labor.

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